The leaders of Israel, Greece and Cyprus will likely hold a three-way meeting in Cyprus in January, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced Wednesday, following a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem.
The tripartite meeting is expected to focus on energy issues, which were also a key topic of the Netanyahu-Tsipras discussion. Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades was in Israel earlier this month, also for talks dominated by the energy question.
This was the first visit ever to Israel for Tsipras, head of Greece’s far-left Syriza party.
In addition to meeting Netanyahu, Tsipras met with opposition leader Isaac Herzog.
He is scheduled to meet on Thursday with President Reuven Rivlin before going to Ramallah for talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Netanyahu, who in 2010 forged close ties with one of Tsipras’s predecessors, George Papandreou, characterized his talks with Tsipras as “broad, deep and productive.”
Netanyahu said Israel and Greece have a common interest in exploring opportunities, while at the same time pushing back against dangers emanating from “violent religious fundamentalism,” which wants to control the world and is sweeping through the Middle East, North Africa and other parts of the world.
Netanyahu praised Tsipras for the economic steps he is taking, and said he had to take similarly difficult economic steps in Israel in the past.
Netanyahu said he believes the Greek economy would “bounce back,” and that he would encourage Israelis to invest there.
Tsipras said it is well known that in the last few years great efforts have been made to strengthen the ties between Israel and Greece.
“We are on the way toward strategic cooperation, but we should not forget that there are other directions where we should also focus,” he said.
He specifically mentioned tourism – some 350,000 Israelis visited Greece this year, as opposed to 50,000 five years ago – cultural ties and the field of energy.
Tsipras said the three-way meeting between him, Netanyahu and Anastasiades would deal with how the three countries could cooperate in the energy field. That meeting will come as Israel is exploring its natural gas
options. One of the options is to export the gas through a pipeline through Cyprus and via Greece.
Other options include exporting via Turkey or through Egypt.
Tsipras said he spoke with Netanyahu about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well, and that as a “friend of Israel” offered Greece’s help in facilitating negotiations between the two sides. In the past, Athens has offered to hold the talks on one of the Greek islands.
The Greek premier also stressed the need to ensure Israel’s security, as well as the safety of innocent civilians.
His visit, and the degree to which he has maintained and even strengthened Greece’s ties with Israel, is a sign of how Tsipras is a “man of surprises, said Arye Mekel, Israel’s former ambassador to Greece from 2010 to 2014.
Mekel, now a senior research fellow at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, who wrote an article for the center in January titled “The New Greek Government: Israel has Reason for Concern,” said it was not a given that Tsipras would continue the strong ties with Israel that began in 2010 under the Socialist government of Papandreou and continued under the conservative government of Antonis Samaras.
Before coming to power, Mekel pointed out, Syriza was very critical of Israel and sympathetic to the Palestinians, with one leader, who is now an assistant minister, having taken part in one of the Gaza flotillas. Nevertheless, he said, Tsipras has maintained the relationship, including the military cooperation between the two countries, which includes joint air maneuvers.
Mekel said Tsipras’s visit here at this time is also an indication that the prime minister is interested in raising Greece’s profile internationally.
He pointed out that the Greek defense minister, Panos Kammenos, is from a right-wing party in the governing coalition and is very supportive of a strong relationship with Israel. Kammenos was in Israel earlier this year.
Greece, which traditionally was very cold to Israel, began a significant warming up in 2010 under Papandreou, which can be attributed to a number of factors, foremost among them the significant deterioration of Israel’s ties with Turkey and Greece’s need for friends and partners in the wake of its severe financial problems.
The change in ties has been manifest in Greece’s dispatch of significant assistance in December 2010 to fight the Carmel forest fire; its preventing the launch of a second Gaza flotilla from Greek ports in 2011; the huge increase in Israeli tourism to the country; the increased quality and quantity of Israeli-Greek military cooperation; and the discussions about forming a Greece-Israel-Cyprus energy triangle in the eastern Mediterranean.